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VLADIMIR PUTIN IS IN THRALL TO A DISTINCTIVE BRAND OF RUSSIAN FASCISM

THAT IS WHY HIS COUNTRY IS SUCH A THREAT TO UKRAINE, THE WEST AND HIS

OWN PEOPLE

The Economist

July 29, 2022

 

What matters most in Moscow these days is what is missing. Nobody speaks

openly of the war in Ukraine. The word is banned and talk is dangerous.

The only trace of the fighting going on 1,000km to the south is

advertising hoardings covered with portraits of heroic soldiers. And yet

Russia is in the midst of a war.

 

In the same way, Moscow has no torch processions. Displays of the

half-swastika “Z” sign, representing support for the war, are rare.

Stormtroopers do not stage pogroms. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s ageing

dictator, does not rally crowds of ecstatic youth or call for mass

mobilisation. And yet Russia is in the grip of fascism.

 

Just as Moscow conceals its war behind a “special military

operation”, so it conceals its fascism behind a campaign to eradicate

“Nazis” in Ukraine. Nevertheless Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale

University, detects the tell-tale symptoms: “People disagree, often

vehemently, over what constitutes fascism,” he wrote recently in the

New York Times, “but today’s Russia meets most of the criteria.”

 

The Kremlin has built a cult of personality around Mr Putin and a cult

of the dead around the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. Mr Putin’s

regime yearns to restore a lost golden age and for Russia to be purged

by healing violence. You could add to Mr Snyder’s list a hatred of

homosexuality, a fixation with the traditional family and a fanatical

faith in the power of the state. None of these come naturally in a

secular country with a strong anarchist streak and permissive views on

sex.

 

Understanding where Russia is going under Mr Putin means understanding

where it has come from. For much of his rule, the West saw Russia as a

mafia state presiding over an atomised society. That was not wrong, but

it was incomplete. A decade ago Mr Putin’s popularity began to wane.

He responded by drawing on the fascist thinking that had re-emerged

after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

This may have begun as a political calculation, but Mr Putin got caught

up in a cycle of grievance and resentment that has left reason far

behind. It has culminated in a ruinous war that many thought would never

happen precisely because it defied the weighing of risks and rewards.

 

Under Mr Putin’s form of fascism, Russia is set on a course that knows

no turning back. Without the rhetoric of victimhood and the use of

violence, Mr Putin has nothing to offer his people. For Western

democracies this onward march means that, while he is in power, dealings

with Russia will be riven by hostility and contempt. Some in the West

want a return to business as usual once the war is over, but there can

be no true peace with a fascist Russia.

 

For Ukraine, this means a long war. Mr Putin’s aim is not only to take

territory, but to crush the democratic ideal that is flourishing among

Russia’s neighbours and their sense of separate national identity. He

cannot afford to lose. Even if there is a ceasefire, he is intent on

making Ukraine fail, with a fresh use of force if necessary. It means

that he will use violence and totalitarianism to impose his will at

home. He is not only out to crush a free Ukraine, but is also waging war

against the best dreams of his own people. So far he is winning.

 

What is Russian fascism? The f word is often tossed around casually. It

has no settled definition, but it feeds on exceptionalism and

ressentiment, a mixture of jealousy and frustration born out of

humiliation. In Russia’s case, the source of this humiliation is not

defeat by foreign powers, but abuse suffered by the people at the hands

of their own rulers. Deprived of agency and fearful of the authorities,

they seek compensation in an imaginary revenge against enemies appointed

by the state.

 

Fascism involves performances—think of all those rallies and

uniforms—laced with the thrill of real violence. In all its varieties,

Mr Snyder says, it is characterised by the triumph of the will over

reason. His essay was entitled “We should say it. Russia is

fascist”. In fact the first to talk about it were Russians themselves.

One of them was Yegor Gaidar, the first post-Soviet prime minister. In

2007 he saw a spectre rising from Russia’s post-imperial nostalgia.

“Russia is going through a dangerous phase,” he wrote. “We should

not succumb to the magic of numbers but the fact that there was a

15-year gap between the collapse of the German Empire and Hitler’s

rise to power and 15 years between the collapse of the USSR and Russia

in 2006-07 makes one think.”

 

By 2014 Boris Nemtsov, another liberal politician, was clear:

“Aggression and cruelty are stoked by the television while the key

definitions are supplied by the slightly possessed Kremlin master. The

Kremlin is cultivating and rewarding the lowest instincts in people,

provoking hatred and fighting. This hell cannot end peacefully.”

A year later Nemtsov, by then labelled a “national traitor”, was

murdered beside the Kremlin. In his final interview, a few hours before

his death, he warned that “Russia is rapidly turning into a fascist

state. We already have propaganda modelled after Nazi Germany. We also

have a nucleus of assault brigades. That’s just the beginning.”

 

Nobody has signalled the growing influence of fascism more loudly than

Mr Putin and his acolytes. Far from Moscow’s prosperous streets, the

Kremlin has marked tanks, people and television channels with the letter

  1. The half-swastika has been painted on the doors of Russian film and

theatre critics, promoters of “decadent and degenerate” Western art.

Hospital patients and groups of children, some kneeling, have been

arranged to form half-swastikas for posting online.

 

In the 1930s Walter Benjamin, an exiled German cultural critic, analysed

fascism as a performance. “The logical result of fascism is the

introduction of aesthetics into political life,” he wrote. These

aesthetics were designed to supplant reason and their ultimate

expression was war.

 

Today the two faces of the war on television, Vladimir Solovyov and Olga

Skabeeva, are caricatures of Nazi propagandists. Mr Solovyov is often

dressed in a black double-breasted Bavarian-style jacket. Ms Skabeeva,

severe and chiselled, has a hint of the dominatrix. They project hatred

and aggression. They and their guests decry the West for having declared

war on Russia and plead theatrically with Mr Putin to reduce it to ashes

by unleashing the full might of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

 

This fantasy Armageddon is matched by real violence, the basis of the

relationship between the Russian state and its people. A Levada poll

commissioned by the Committee Against Torture (now itself blacklisted)

showed that 10% of the Russian population has experienced torture by

law-enforcement agencies at some point. There is a culture of cruelty.

Domestic abuse is no longer a crime in Russia. In the first week of the

war young women protesters were humiliated and sexually abused in police

cells. Nearly 30% of Russians say torture should be allowed.

 

Atrocities committed by the Russian army in Bucha and other occupied

cities are not just excesses of war or a breakdown in discipline, but a

feature of army life that is spread more widely by veterans. The 64th

Motor Rifle Brigade, which allegedly carried out the atrocities, was

honoured by Mr Putin with the title of “Guards” for defending the

“motherland and state interests” and praised for its “mass heroism

and valour, tenacity and courage”. The brigade, based in the far east,

is notorious in Russia for its bullying and abuse.

 

Like much else coming from the Kremlin, fascism is a top-down project, a

move by the ruling elite rather than a grassroots movement. It requires

passive acceptance rather than mobilisation of the masses. Its aim is to

disengage people and prevent any form of self-organisation. The Kremlin

and television bosses can turn it up and down. In the early years of his

presidency Mr Putin used money to keep the people out of politics. After

the economy stalled in 2011-12 and the urban middle class came out on

the streets to demand more rights, he stoked nationalism and hatred.

During the political calm after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 fascism

was turned down as suddenly as it had come up.

 

Its resurgence in 2021-22 followed the decline in Mr Putin’s

legitimacy, protests against the poisoning and arrest of Alexei Navalny,

an opposition leader, and the growing alienation of younger Russians who

are less susceptible to television propaganda and more open to the West.

To them Mr Putin was an ageing, vengeful and corrupt grandpa who had a

secret palace exposed by Mr Navalny’s much-watched YouTube film in

  1. Mr Putin needed to turn the volume back up again and Ukraine

offered him the means.

 

Russian fascism has deep roots, going all the way back to the early 20th

century. Fascist ideas flourished among White émigrés after the

Bolshevik revolution and they were partly re-imported to the Soviet

Union by Stalin after the war. He feared that a victory over fascism,

won with America and Britain, would empower and liberate his own people.

So he turned Soviet success into the triumph of totalitarianism and

Russian imperial nationalism. He re-branded war allies as enemies and

fascists hellbent on destroying the Soviet Union and depriving it of its

glory.

 

In the decades that followed, fascism was constrained by official

communist ideology and by Russians’ personal experience of fighting

the Nazis alongside the Western allies. After the Soviet collapse,

however, both of these constraints disappeared and the dark matter was

released. In addition, the liberal elite of the 1990s completely

rejected the old Soviet values, sweeping away a strong tradition of

anti-fascist literature and arts.

 

All the while fascism had festered undercover, within the KGB. In the

late 1990s Alexander Yakovlev, the architect of democratic reforms under

Mikhail Gorbachev, talked openly about the security services as a cradle

of fascism. “The danger of fascism in Russia is real because since

1917 we have become used to living in a criminal world with a criminal

state in charge. Banditry, sanctified by ideology—this wording suits

both communists and fascists.”

 

Such ambiguity was on full display in “Seventeen Moments of

Spring”, a hugely popular 12-part television series made on the

KGB’s orders in the 1970s. On the face of it, the series was nothing

more than an attempt to rebrand the Stalinist secret police. Yuri

Andropov, then KGB chief and later Soviet leader, wanted to glamorise

Soviet spies and attract a new generation of young men into the service.

As it turned out, the programmes helped introduce a Nazi aesthetic into

Russia’s popular culture—an aesthetic that would eventually be

exploited by Mr Putin.

 

The hero is a fictional Soviet spy who infiltrates the Nazi high command

under the name Max Otto von Stierlitz. He is a high-ranking

Standartenführer in the SS, whose mission is to foil a secret plan

forged between the CIA and Germany near the end of the war. Played by

the best-loved Soviet actors, the Nazis in the film are humane and

attractive. Vyacheslav Tikhonov, who played the role of Stierlitz, was a

model of male perfection. Tall and handsome, with perfect cheekbones, he

shone in a sleek Nazi uniform that had been tailored in the Soviet

defence ministry.

 

Ordinary Russians were mesmerised. Dmitry Prigov, a Russian artist and

poet, wrote: “Our wonderful Stierlitz is the perfect fascist man and

the perfect Soviet man at the same time, making transgressive

transitions from one to the other with subduing and untraceable

ease. He is the harbinger of a new age—a time of mobility and

manipulativeness.”

 

Mr Putin was the beneficiary. In 1999, just before he was named as

Russia’s president, voters told pollsters that Stierlitz would be one

of their ideal choices for the office, behind Georgy Zhukov, the Red

Army’s commander in the second world war. Mr Putin, a former KGB man

who had been stationed in East Germany, had cultivated the image of a

latter-day Stierlitz.

 

When vtSiom, one of the pollsters, repeated the exercise in 2019,

Stierlitz came in first place. “An inversion has occurred,” the

pollsters said. “In 1999 Putin seemed the preferred candidate because

he looked like Stierlitz; in 2019 the image of Stierlitz remains

relevant because it is being implemented by the country’s most popular

politician.” On June 24th this year a statue to Stierlitz was unveiled

in front of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters that was

part of the Soviet KGB.

 

For Mr Putin, the fascist aesthetic is matched by a distinctively

Russian fascist philosophy. He and most of his former KGB peers embraced

capitalism and rallied against liberals and socialists. They also

projected the humiliation they had suffered in the first post-Soviet

decade onto the whole country, portraying the end of the cold war as a

betrayal and defeat.

 

Their prophet is Ivan Ilyin, a thinker of the early 20th century who was

sent into exile by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s and embraced fascism in

Italy and Germany. Ilyin saw fascism as a “necessary and inevitable

Phenomenon, based on a healthy sense of national patriotism”. He

provided justification for their self-appointed role as the state’s

guardians. As such, they were entitled to control its resources.

 

After the Second World War, Ilyin rejected what he saw as Hitler’s

errors, such as atheism, and his crimes, including the extermination of

the Jews. But he retained his faith in the fascist idea of national

resurgence. In 1948 he wrote that “fascism is a complex, multifaceted

phenomenon and, historically speaking, far from being outlived.”

Accordingly, Mr Putin embraced religion, rejected anti-Semitism and

eschewed collective leadership for his own direct rule, confirmed by

plebiscites.

 

Ilyin’s book, “Our Tasks”, was recommended by the Kremlin as

essential reading to state officials in 2013. It ends with a short essay

to a future Russian leader. Western-style democracy and elections would

bring ruin to Russia, Ilyin wrote. Only “united and strong state

power, dictatorial in scope and state-national in essence” could save

it from chaos.

 

The Ilyin work Mr Putin is said to have read and reread is “What

Dismemberment of Russia Would Mean for the World”, written in 1950. In

it the author argues that Western powers will try “to carry out their

hostile and ridiculous experiment even in the post-Bolshevik chaos,

deceptively presenting it as the supreme triumph of ‘freedom’,

‘democracy’ and ‘federalism’. German propaganda has invested

too much money and effort in Ukrainian separatism (and maybe not only

Ukrainian)”.

 

In 2005, following the first popular uprising in Ukraine, known as the

Orange revolution, Mr Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the

greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Drawing on

anti-Ukrainian feelings in Russia, he then set his country on a path of

confrontation with the West. That same year Ilyin’s body was brought

back to Russia from Switzerland, where he had died in exile in 1954. Mr

Putin reportedly paid for the gravestone from his own savings. In 2009

he laid flowers on Ilyin’s grave.

 

The fact that Mr Putin has embraced fascist methods and fascist thinking

holds an alarming message for the rest of the world. Fascism works by

creating enemies. It makes Russia the brave victim of others’ hatred

even as it justifies feelings of hatred towards its real and imagined

foes at home and abroad.

 

Dmitry Medvedev, a former president and “moderniser”, recently

posted on social media: “I hate them. They are bastards and

degenerates. They want us, Russia, dead. I’ll do all I can to make

them disappear.” He did not bother to say who he had in mind. But

Russia’s hostility has three targets: the liberal West, Ukraine and

traitors at home. All of them need to take stock of what Russian fascism

means.

 

Mr Putin has long sought to undermine Western democracies. He has

supported far-right parties in Europe, such as National Rally in France,

Fidesz in Hungary and the Northern League in Italy. He has interfered in

American elections, hoping to help Donald Trump defeat the Democrats.

 

Even if fighting stops in Ukraine, the devotee of Ilyin in the Kremlin

will not settle into an accommodation with Western democracies. Mr Putin

and his men will do everything in their power to battle liberalism and

sow discord.

 

For centuries Russia has been partly European, but Kirill Rogov, a

political analyst, wrote recently that the war in Ukraine enabled Mr

Putin to cut off that part of its identity. As long as Mr Putin is in

power, Russia will build alliances with China, Iran and other

anti-liberal countries. It will, as ever, be in the ideological

vanguard.

 

The outlook for Ukraine is even more bleak. A few weeks after the start

of the war Ria Novosti, a state news agency, published an article that

called for the purging “of the ethnic component of self-identification

among the people populating the territories of historical Malorossia and

Novorossia [Ukraine and Belarus] initiated by the Soviet powers.”

 

Ukraine, Mr Putin said, was the source of deadly viruses, home to

American-funded biological labs experimenting with strains of

coronavirus and cholera. “Biological weapons were being created in

direct proximity to Russia,” he warned.

 

On Russian state television, Ukrainians are called worms. In a recent

talk show Mr Solovyov joked: “When a doctor is deworming a cat, for

the doctor it is a special operation, for the worms it is a war and for

the cat it is cleansing.” Margarita Simonyan, the boss of RT, a

state-controlled international TV network, stated that “Ukraine cannot

continue to exist.”

 

The purpose of the invasion is not just to capture territory but to

cleanse Ukraine of its separate identity, which threatens the identity

of Russia as an imperial nation. Along with its punitive forces, the

Kremlin has also dispatched hundreds of schoolteachers to re-educate

Ukrainian children in the occupied territories. It equates an

independent sovereign Ukraine with Nazism. Either Ukraine will cease to

exist as a nation state or Russia itself will be infected by the idea of

emancipation that will destroy its imperial identity.

 

The bleakest of all is the outlook for Russia. Mr Putin did not plan on

a war of attrition. He imagined that a strike on Kyiv would rapidly lead

to a new regime in Ukraine and the submission of Ukrainian society to

his will. So far, Mr Putin has failed to defeat Ukraine. But he has

succeeded in defeating Russia.

 

Talk of bodily contamination and cleansing is not limited to Ukraine.

Russia also contains alien elements—oyster-slurping,

foie-gras-eating traitors who mentally live in the West and are

infected with ideas of gender fluidity. The Russian people, Mr Putin

declared in a TV address, will “simply spit them out like an insect in

their mouth” leading to “a natural and necessary self-detoxification

of society”.

 

Like Stalin, Mr Putin distrusts and fears the people. They need to be

controlled, manipulated and, when necessary, suppressed. He excludes

them from real decision-making. As Greg Yudin, a Russian sociologist,

argues, they are needed for the ritual of elections that demonstrate the

legitimacy of the ruler, but the rest of the time they should be

invisible. Mr Yudin calls this attitude “people on call”.

 

The war changed everything. As Hitler told Goebbels in the spring of

1943, “the war made possible for us the solution of a whole series

of problems that could never have been solved in normal times”. Soon

Mr Putin was able to impose de-facto military rule and censorship. He

blocked Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and any remaining independent

media, isolated the country from poisonous Western influence and chased

anyone who objected to the war out of the country. Any public statement

that challenges the Kremlin’s version of events in Ukraine is punishable

by a 15-year prison sentence.

 

Asmolov, of King’s College London, argues this new political

reality was unimaginable only months ago and is the Kremlin’s most

significant achievement in the conflict. The war has enabled Mr Putin to

transform Russia into what Mr Asmolov calls a “disconnective

society”. He wrote that “These efforts are driven by the notion that

it’s impossible to protect the internal legitimacy of the current

leadership and keep citizens loyal if Russia remains relatively open and

linked up to the global networked system.”

 

So far Mr Putin’s aim has been to paralyse Russian society rather than

rally the crowds. The show of unity and mobilisation is achieved by

television operating in the information space cleared of alternative

voices. Among television viewers—mostly people over 60—more than 80%

support the war. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, who get their news from the

internet, it is less than half. This is perhaps why the symbolic

representatives of the z-operation are not working men and women, but a

babushka with a red-flag and an eight-year-old “grandson”(painted

on murals and imprinted on chocolate wrappers, respectively). They are

the ideal television viewers and reality-show extras.

 

The combination of fear and propaganda produces what Mr Rogov calls an

“imposed consensus”. The state publicises opinion polls showing that

the majority of Russians support the “special military operation”.

The main reason people support Mr Putin is that they think everybody

else does, too. The need to belong is powerful. Even when people have

access to information, they “simply ignore it or rationalise it, just

to avoid destroying the concept of self, country and power created by

propaganda,” notes Elena Koneva, a sociologist.

 

The engine of fascism does not have a reverse gear. Mr Putin cannot turn

back to a reality-based brand of authoritarianism. Expansion is in its

nature. It will seek to expand both geographically and into people’s

private lives. As the war drags on and casualties mount, the question is

whether Mr Putin can mobilise the passive majority or whether they start

to grow restive. The elites in the Kremlin, the army and the security

services will watch closely.

 

Victor Klemperer, a German Jew who fought in the first world war and

survived the second, wrote that “Nazism permeated the flesh and blood

of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which

were imposed on them in a million repetitions.” His book, “The

Language of the Third Reich”, describes how the dissociating prefix

ent- (de-) gained prominence in Germany during the war.

 

As Russian tanks stormed Ukraine in the small hours of February 24th, Mr

Putin began his war against Ukraine with that same dissociating prefix.

The goal, he said, was denatsifikatsia (de-Nazification) and

demilitarizatsia (de-militarisation). Ria Novosti, the state news

agency, later added that “De-Nazification inevitably will be also

de-Ukrainisation.”

 

“Germany was almost destroyed by Nazism,” Klemperer wrote. “The

task of curing it of this fatal disease is today termed

‘de-Nazification’. I hope, and indeed believe, that this dreadful

Word will fade away and lead no more than a historical existence as

soon as it has performed its current duty. But that won’t be for some

time yet, because it is not only Nazi actions that have to vanish, but

also the typical Nazi way of thinking and its breeding-ground: the

language of Nazism.”